Discovering the Depths of Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square
The above was taken from the following link:
In late 2017 our book club was voting on our next selection of books and Jacquie, one of our members, chose to add Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill to our list. She tagged this post from the Globe and Mail’s Facebook page. The member’s exact words were “I think I want to have this be my selection MJ. I have no idea what it's about, but it changed his life so I am willing to put it out there!!” Needless to say, that clinched it for all of us and the book was selected. It turned out to be a very good book for me to lead the discussion on as I was heading to Canada to visit family and it takes place in Toronto. Not to mention I think it makes for a great book blog.
This blog will have questions for other book clubs, a self-guided tour if you happen to find yourself in Toronto, and a presentation for those of you who can’t make it to Toronto whatever the reason.
In the spring of 2018, on our trip to Canada I dragged my hubby, the boy, and the girl, through Kensington Market so I could scout out information to lead the discussion on Bellevue Square. Having finished the book, making massive amounts of notes, and tagging many, many pages, I made up a tour of the area for myself and a plan to take pictures to share with my book club. Of course, this made the book all the more enjoyable for someone like me who likes to get out and experience how an author developed characters, and the environment they based their book on.
The book club I belong to is made up of members who almost all have some sort of international background and have lived on at least 2 continents. From this experience, I’ve learned book club discussions are better if the leader of the discussion has lived in the place where the story is set or where the author comes from. The leader can then help clarify small nuances that others may not understand. This again, helped to make Bellevue Square all the better for me to lead the discussion on and for me as a Canadian.
First a bit of background on the area in which Bellevue Square is set. It takes place almost completely in an area of Toronto that is about 3km by 3km, between U of T (University of Toronto) and Trinity Bellwoods Park. A part of the area is called Kensington Market and in the centre of the area is Bellevue Square Park. There are multiple CAMH locations (Centre for Addictions and Mental Health) that almost define the entire area Redhill is discussing. As a result, there are many outpatients or patients with day passes regularly on the streets.
Population wise the area is very diverse. The diversity began with George Taylor Denison who built Bellevue Estate on the land and in the 1850’s and 1860’s began to separate and sell the land off. The first people to reside there were the British and Irish workers, followed by Jewish immigrants. After the Second World War new Canadians from Italy, Portugal, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and Asia were all drawn to the eclectic area (summarized from https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=14463&pid=0). The author described Bellevue Park as “a strange crossroads in Toronto. It’s a public space that every imaginable person passes through. If you wanted to put out a net and capture one of everything, you’d have to do that for only a couple of days. [Bellevue Square] is a space that has a very layered consciousness, with layered voices, culture, and history under foot.”
Many of the streets in Kensington Market are discussed over and over again. For example, Jean and Ingrid walking along Dundas St., or Jimmy walking up Denison Ave. towards Bellevue Square. Augusta Ave and Baldwin St are the locations of the pupusa seller Katerina. Redhill has clearly used the diversity of the area, the proximity to mental health facilities, U of T, and Toronto Western Hospital to weave an intricate story. As I wandered through the area, I could even envision what might have inspired him to create his characters. I am sure a few days spent lounging about Bellevue Square Park would surely give you a great idea of who Jimmy, Cullen, Miriam, and Jean are.
1. What was your first impression of Jean? How did your idea of Jean change through the book? What about Ingrid?
2. Michael Redhill writes under the pen name Inger Ash Wolfe as well. Why do you think Redhill chose to write this book under his real name?
3. The book is fiction, but in the book who do you think the real person is and who is the doppelganger? Why? Do Katerina, Paula, Ian, Jimmy, and others really exist?
4. What do you think about the knowledge the author has on mental health? Do you believe he is a supporter of quality mental health care?
5. Discuss some of the symbolism in the book. For example the discussions on vampires, La Llorona, and Le Horla.
6. Why do you think Redhill changed Ingrid’s name to Inger Ash Wolfe at the end – his personal pen name?
Tour of Jean’s Kensington Market and Area
• Start your tour at 250 Dundas St. West. This is the location of one of the Centres for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) located in the area around Kensington Market. 3 of the facilities are shown with a green star if you would like to walk past others.
• Walk west along Dundas St. W. past the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Jean follows Ingrid along Dundas to her home at 36 Pine St. Jean states it is close to the AGO. There is no Pine St. in the area but this would be where Redhill was placing Ingrid’s home.
• Turn left on Beverley St. and walk south to Grange Ave. You are entering the area where Jean has found Ingrid’s house. If you walk along Grange Ave. and turn right at Huron St. You will see the types of houses that Ingrid could have lived in.
• When you reach Dundas St. W. turn left again and walk along Dundas crossing Spadina Ave. to Kensington Ave. Jean walks along Dundas in search of Ingrid throughout the first 2 parts of the book.
• Turn right on to Kensington Ave. You are now in Kensington Market. Wander through the area and explore the streets from the perspective of Jean. You can look for the Peace Food Love Café (I don’t know if it is a real name or just an interpretation of a place), a produce dealer, the Churro sellers, the Marijuana stores.
• Make sure to enjoy the eclectic sites, sounds, and people.
• Turn right at St. Andrew’s St. and walk to Spadina Ave. again where you will turn left. Walk along Spadina Ave to Baldwin St. and turn left again, walking west. Jean has also walked along this street in search of Ingrid.
• At Augusta Ave. turn left. Somewhere in this vicinity is Katerina’s pupusa spot. If you are up to it stop and have a pupusa, perhaps it will be the place Redhill based Katerina’s place on.
• Walk south on Augusta Ave until you reach Bellevue Square Park. Wander through the park.
• Explore the park making sure to take time to people watch and try to envision the people Redhill might have based his characters on.
o You should be able to see The Kiever Synagogue – is there someone who might resemble Miriam around? Is there a fire hydrant there?
o Note the Al Waxman statue (a very famous Torontonian – at least to Torontonians) Jean mentions a few times in the book. One of those is when she witnesses a teenager making out with the statue.
• Leave the park on the south side and walk down Denison Ave. This is the street Dr. Morbier lives on and the type of house he would have had his practice in. Jimmy often walked along Denison Ave. Make sure you turn around somewhere on the street and take a look back at the park.
• When you reach Dundas St. W. again turn right (heading west). Again, Jean walked along here often in her hunt for Ingrid.
• Before you arrive at Bathurst you will see Toronto Western Hospital on your right. This is where Jean was taken to deal with her seizures. The hospital is known for its leading research into neurological problems and a very appropriate hospital for Redhill to pick for Jean to be a patient in.
• Cross Bathurst St. and continue on Dundas St. W. You are now walking toward the Bookshop. It is about 1 km along the way. It was positioned north of Trinity Bellwoods Park on Dundas. When Jean is back in her reality (if she really is back in reality) the store was a pet shop. If you find a book shop or a pet store maybe it is the one Redhill was inspired by.
• Walk through Trinity Bellwoods Park and when you reach Queen St. W. to the right there is another large CAMH facility. However, you can also end the tour here.
When you exit Trinity Bellwoods Park if you turn left you can take the opportunity to explore Queen St. Another interesting area of Toronto. There are many clothing designers and it goes right through Toronto’s Fashion District (between Bathurst and Spadina). If you go even further you will pass Nathan Phillip’s Square where City Hall is, and further still you will see the Old City Hall and the iconic Eaton’s Centre (still called that though Eaton’s has long ago gone out of business).